Exploring Amsterdam for the first time

I’ve lived in almost abject fear of Amsterdam ever since boys from Sixth Form would boast about how they were arranging the dirtiest weekend away imaginable. Unfortunately, this seems to be the connotations Amsterdam evokes. Even the Immigration officer at Gatwick airport said with a smirk ‘Amsterdam? Have a great time away’ – okay, that doesn’t say much, but it was the tone in which he said it. We all know that in Amsterdam, prostitution is as legal as smoking cannabis. Two of the very activities that have personally put me off from visiting for a long time. Well, finally I’ve visited and this is what I thought about the destination.

It’s different, in every way
Last year I had a blogging adventure in Rotterdam which was wonderful, but everyone knows that Amsterdam is the city in the Netherlands that everyone wants to visit. So I appreciate the Rotterdam Tourism folk trying to convince tourists to fly to Rotterdam instead of Amsterdam, but for us Brits there really is no need. It was a mere 45 minute flight to reach Amsterdam Airport and if you really wanted to visit Rotterdam, just jump on a train and explore for a day. Although you’ll probably just end up staying in Amsterdam because the city is just a maze waiting to be explored. That’s if you can negotiate your way across the roads; dodging trams, bicycles, mopeds and cars that don’t always stop for the red light. Then you’ll probably end up falling into a canal! Simply walking about the city is a delight though.

Amsterdam canal cruise


Unless you prefer to have a canal cruise through the winding city, which allows you to see some of the key tourist attractions from a different perspective. Noteworthy attractions for me were cruising past a multi story bicycle park with 2,500 spaces (it was full), seeing the different types of houseboats and the sheer size of the canal system. At one point we could see down a stretch of canal lined with dozens of bridges in front of each other.

For those who like shopping, you’ll find plenty of places to visit.

Amsterdam shopping

History is closer than you think
Before visiting Amsterdam I must admit, I wasn’t that fussed about visiting the Anne Frank House and Museum. I knew the queues would be big and after speaking to a couple who live in Amsterdam (sat next to them when watching Phantom of the Opera in London, early January) understood the museum ran on a sort of tourist conveyer belt system. You are shuffled through the house and connected museum, stopping occasionally to watch videos and when there are people-jams up ahead.

All I can say is, you must visit.

Anne Frank house
Anne Frank house

History is a lot closer than you think when you wander through the Anne Frank house. You realise just how recent the liberation of the Netherlands was and how dreadfully incomprehensible the tragedies of World War 2 were. This was reality, the left behind scribblings and pinups on Anne Frank’s bedroom wall makes that clear. The fear the family must have gone through is too unbearable to think about and the hopes they must have had to make it through the war unharmed.

You must visit the house.

I wasn’t able to take any pictures inside, which was a delight in itself. There is nothing more frustrating that having people standing in front of you constantly snapping away! The Anne Frank Museum is a key piece of history which everyone should visit if you find yourself in Amsterdam. I recommend visiting the museum later in the day, maybe around 7pm. The queue only took 45 minutes although be prepared to wrap up warm, the wind was freezing!

Red lights
I shuffled through Amsterdam’s red light district late in the afternoon, as the sun was preparing to set. As a bashful Brit I wasn’t too sure where to look and I felt the whole area was really hiding the true Amsterdam, the one that proudly showed itself off during the canal tour a day earlier. Prostitutes were exhibiting their goods in windows and tall men patiently stood outside the doors of live sex shows, waiting to welcome passerbys in. I didn’t stop walking – I didn’t dare, although couldn’t help overhearing one conversation.

“So, what is this then, a video?”

“No, this is live porn, the real thing.”

“Okay, what do we think guys? How much does it cost to get in?”

“30 EUR each. No discounts.”

People were urinating in the streets, although the area wasn’t nearly as sordid as my imagination. I’m sure after 11pm the area changes a lot, but in the afternoon is was okay. Quite safe to explore during the day. Although the Amsterdam Tourist Board will advise to visit as a couple or group.

I loved Amsterdam and it offered a nice breakaway from London. It’s worth visiting and the city is a lot more than red lights. In fact, 95% of Amsterdam is more than prostitution. Although you will see a lot of coffee shops! Perhaps that is why everyone is so friendly?


To reply or @reply? That is the question.

Twitter’s head of news, Vivian Schiller, caused chaos on Twitter when she revealed during her speech at the Newspaper Association of American mediaXchange 2014 in Denver that Twitter is “…working on moving the scaffolding of Twitter into the background”.

It’s widely expected that the day of the Twitter [email protected] may be numbered, opting for Facebook styled mentions instead. However, scaffolding may also refer to the use of #hashtags.

There is no doubt that the @reply function on Twitter has become synonymous with the network and if this change goes ahead then this would be one of the biggest cosmetic refreshes on Twitter since the network was launched in 2006. As reported in TheNextWeb the use of [email protected] and ‘#’ on Twitter may make it hard for newer users to understand the service, but there is no doubt that existing Twitter users will protest against the change.

Twitter has been making a number of changes to its service recently, with the latest update revealed on their blog last night that Twitter photo sharing will begin to get more social. This means mobile users will soon have the ability to tag up to 10 people in a photo and share up to 4 photos in a single tweet.

Is Twitter making improvements to its service or is the network just copying Facebook? Now that is the question.

Originally published on the KeeneComms blog.

What does your Twitter network say about you?

Currently my profile description on Twitter reads as the following:

Digital Consultant for @keenecomms. Writer for Thought Symposium. Sell ideas, words and attention for a living. Fuelled by coffee and ale.

It’s written as an attempt to introduce myself to potential new Twitter followers, in the hope of converting them to avid fans. It sort of works! If you manage social media programmes for clients then you will know that it tends to be the descriptions on Twitter that helps us identify who Twitter users are. My description attempts to convey, in a sort of creative way, that I work in the PR industry and enjoy blogging.

For social media programmes Twitter descriptions are crucial because once you’ve identified the influencers in a client’s campaign, you want to know everything about them. Yet, most of the time agencies will only look at Twitter descriptions and ignore the depth of data behind each Twitter account. Assuming you’ve identified an influencer in the first place then you probably already know the following aspects about the account:

  • The user’s lifecycle of content, the type of content they share and how popular it is
  • The number of followers the user has and what that ratio is to following
  • Number of reactions the user receives online (RTs, shares and favourites)

The next step is to perform exploratory data analysis (EDA) to discover the main characteristics of an influencer’s Twitter account. In the case of the graphic below, I have visualised the latest 500 followers to my Twitter account (data captured in Sept 2013 but it’s still relevant).

As with my last blog post, the key to the image below is as follows:

  • Colours represent organic communities (AKA. value groups)
  • Lines indicate follow/followed relationships
  • Node size refers to influence (bigger the better), as calculate by the number of connections

michaeltwitternetworkfull copy

In an instant I can see from my personal network that the groups who follow me and engage with me the most are:

  • Travel blogging community (DARK PINK)
  • Media industry (GREEN)
  • Social media & SEO (BLUE)
  • Cheltenham community (LIGHT GREEN)
  • PR Students (DARK PURPLE)
  • Pirate Party UK (RED)

With a larger dataset and graphic, I’m sure other sub-communities of my Twitter account would also be discoverable. Even with capturing the last 500 followers of my account, those who know me will understand the communities I’ve identified in this post summarise my online activities well.

Marching for what you believe in

Today thousands showed their support for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity by going on a 14 mile walk (or 5 mile) between their Chelsea and Sutton hospitals. As part of the celebrations my other half got involved as part of The Goldsmiths team. It’s events like this when people have the opportunity to unite, in order to stand up for what they believe in. In the case of the Marsden March, join those who have been touched by cancer and support the progression of medical research. Everyone has their reasons.

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 16.37.41

Apart from acting as chauffeur at the start and end of the event, I didn’t take part in the march today. Although cheekily joined in with the celebrations at the end! The whole event did make me think deeper why-we-do-what-we-do.

Why bother?
Why bother taking part or taking action? Most days on the way to work I walk past Downing Street, often making my way through the various protests on the opposite side of the road. For the last couple of weeks the post has been well-served by Ukrainians urging David Cameron to take action against Russia, whilst warning against the possibility of World War 3 and the insanity of Putin. I respect the efforts of the Ukrainians, their friendliness to Londoners walking past who ask questions and their sheer determinism to see change. It’s political activism like this that keeps the world spinning and, similar to the Marsden March, I find it all very inspiring.

The answer to the ‘why bother?’ question is probably dedication. The cynic inside whispers that despite protesters standing at their post, braving the elements and creating colourful materials, the government is probably not going to listen. After all, they are just the voices of about 30 people, of about 63 million in the UK. The possibility of success is low and the complexity of the situation is high, yet their dedication is relentless. The United States Postal Service doesn’t have an official mission statement but many quote the inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York which reads,

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”

A grand statement! This is dedication. The last time I visited New York I was 5 years old, the inscription means a lot more to me now at 24. I wonder if it could be applied in a communications agency context?

“Neither lack of coffee nor time of day nor loss of IT stays these practitioners from the swift completion of their communications programmes”

Why bother? As a promise has been made and now the task must be fulfilled. No matter how bleak a situation is, the solution is to keep going. I can imagine hikes and marathons are similar, it’s a march for what you believe in. It takes patience to complete, agility to keep going and the foundational belief that actions are for the greater good.


Social media gets exciting when you can perform network analysis. I just did.

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 20.47.24It’s peculiar that the majority of mainstream social media tools tend to focus more on the content shared across social media, rather than how accounts are connected with each other. There are various ways to conduct social media research but my favourite way is to perform network analysis. Over the last couple of years there have been astounding developments in these sorts of tools.

Twitter is a network which lends itself to be ideal for network analysis because of its non-mutual relationships between accounts (e.g. I can follow @stephenfry but he doesn’t have to follow back) and it’s fairly open data sharing policy. Even without official access to the Twitter Firehose, I am able to scrape enough data in a few seconds which can be visualised beautifully.

The image below is a link to an interactive Twitter map that displays the last 915 tweets from the #NeedForSpeed promotional Twitter campaign that ran yesterday (Thurs 13th March 2014). Be assured, this isn’t data from a client campaign and is only fuelled by publicly available data. If anything, this makes the insights even more incredible because a simple geek can quickly draw conclusions about this social media advertising campaign without actually having access to the advertiser’s dashboard.

Do click through and visually navigate your way across the Twitter map, investigate how Twitter users are connected with each other and decide what conclusions you can draw from this campaign (Do comment your conclusions, would be interesting to read).

Twitter Network Analysis
Click this image to visit interactive map

Here’s a guide to the interactive map:

  • Colours represent organic communities (AKA. value groups)
  • Lines indicate follow/followed relationships
  • Node size refers to influence (bigger the better), as calculate by the number of connections

It’s these sorts of visualisations that empower the theoretical side of the PR industry and why some aspects can only be understood from that angle. Do take a deep breath and dive into this post written by David Phillips in November 2012. In the post Phillips talks candidly about his struggle to devise a concept that would bring PR theory in line with what we know about the internet. He had a brainwave…

“It goes back to some work I did on tokens and values in which we identify people and organisation as the nexus of values; the work of Bruno Amaral who showed that people cluster round commonly held values (an empirical study); Thoughts about wealth being based on relationships… In an era of mass-media dilution, communication has a higher and growing dependency on network communication as a mechanism to introduce individuals to the story of the hour. It is this development that is the evolving and critical element that PR theory has to address most urgently. We need to see why and how values (some of them being no more than a hyperlink) spread in networks and how this is different to mass media ‘communication’.”

From 2012 there have been a number of studies to attempt showing the network effect of social media communication but the challenge was to devise a method of instantly tracking network changes, based upon content being shared. At the centre of this, is the foundational understanding that people will congregate around values online (in actual fact the rabbit hole goes much deeper on this issue, but this is a matter for another blog post).

These network graphs highlight another important observation about how we use social media. Even with freedom of expression and ability to link in non-mutual relationships, as a species we are still bound by our very nature. Something that anthropologists may refer to as Dunbar’s number, we tend to communicate in an average group size of 150 people. Any more than this and we are unable to maintain stable social relationships. Different industries need to be aware of this limitation as previous research as shown me that:

  • The PR industry (PRCA & CIPR practitioners) tend to fall into a network pickle. We broadcast content, share and reach agreement as an internal community, rather than engaging with practitioners outside of our digital social circles. Therefore, for most of us, social media is simply a massive echo chamber for internal debate. When, in reality, it’s probably our clients that would benefit from most the materials we create.
  • We aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap, previous research has shown me that the travel blogging community is similar. With some of the top bloggers creating engagement between themselves rather than reaching out to the ‘general public’. It’s too be expected, social media may eventually influence our natural behaviours but for the moment we’re still only humans!

These sorts of visualisations start to get really interesting when applied to other social networks, such as LinkedIn or Quora. Thanks to the research capabilities at Keene Communications and Social Media Research Foundation, I’m getting closer each day.


I’ve just deleted 100,000+ emails

I say ‘just’, it actually took 32 hours to clear the inbox entirely. Emails went as far back as 2006 in Gmail, with a whole host of social media notification updates such as:

  • “You’ve just received a new message on Bebo!”
  • “You’ve just received a friend request on MySpace.”
  • “Thank you for signing up for a Facebook account.”

It was scary just how much information about my childhood was contained in those 100,000+ emails. At first glance they could all appear to be junk, but with the right analysis tool, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to get a very accurate picture of what my teenage years were like. Messages from old love interests (one of which is now married!), attachments from secondary school and plenty of University essay drafts.

To have all of that information deleted provides an air of freedom, but also a clear sense of loss. The past has truly been erased; gone in a couple of keystrokes. It’s not like I’m trying to escape the past of if I have a problem with Google owning so much information about my life. It just needed deleting.

Whilst I let my laptop process all those emails I went on a 7-mile walk with my other half to help her train for the Marsden March, which happens next weekend. Walking from Esher I took this picture as we passed over the A3, the giant urban pathway is strangely beautiful. It reminded me that it is good to see the world through your own eyes, rather than represented through pixels on a screen.

Walking over the A3

I wonder what the next 100,000+ emails about my life will look like?

Use data to craft your digital strategy

We are all designers.

This was the main message behind my post last year about the importance of digital desire paths. For those who are new to building a digital strategy, desire paths are an idea to remind us about the affordance of design.

As Wikipedia explains:
An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling.

As PR folk we should be constantly focused on affordance, because the strategies we devise on behalf of clients should directly tap into a person’s behavior. We need to stop talking about ‘audience’ and instead recognise the targets of our campaigns as ‘users’. The wordplay is subtle, the latter focuses on individuals, whilst ‘audience’ is a mistaken term – it’s a concept describing a mass of ultra-attentive people who are ready to be zapped with PR messaging. Frankly, ‘audience’ is bullshit.

Online measurement tools prove unreservedly that every user interacts differently with online campaigns, yet many will fall into patterns of behavior as usually directed by design. For example, have a look at the below graphic.

Thought Symposium user behaviour

The graphic is a snapshot view of the traffic this blog currently receives.

  • Numbers represent the unique visits
  • The addresses are individual pages visited
  • Green shows visits
  • Red shows dropped traffic

The whole table is laid out in terms of ‘first visit’, ‘second page visited’, ‘third page visited’… and so on.

In an instant I can see how individual users are interacting with this blog, how the design of my blog is influencing behavior and which content is performing the best.

My topline thoughts so far:

1)     29% of the users who visit this blog leave immediately. Indicating that perhaps this blog was not relevant, looked too confusing or isn’t updated enough.

2)     The majority of people tend to only look at the top performing posts (as shown on the sidebar), rather than reading the newest content. This could potentially be a problem that threatens the future performance of this blog because the ‘top content’ isn’t necessarily the best.

3)     Once someone has visited they tend to interact once, then leave. This means the design of this blog needs to deliver relevant content quickly. In the future any increases in this stat could be a reason to change the design of the blog, to show full posts on the first page.

Of course, there are other factors at play in this diagram that are not showing. For example, I know that I’m receiving a fair amount of search engine traffic for a post about PayPal at the moment. Yes, the traffic spike looks great but actually it’s not a great piece of content based upon search engine queries. People don’t want to read my post ranting about PayPal, they want fraud support, and so the bounce rate on this post is high.

Keep my above graphic in mind and read my post from last year about digital desire paths. This post is a small example for how data can be used to craft digital strategies that perform. If you don’t use data to influence your online designs, then you are building something blindfolded.




The PR Masterclass by Alex Singleton [Book Review]

The PR Masterclass bookThere are various books about PR on the market. Some are timeless classics such as ‘Exploring Public Relations’ by Tench and Yeomans. Others provide a more up-to-date approach such as ‘Public Relations’ by Averill Gorden (a past lecturer of mine). Then there are a multitude of books written by authors who have mindlessly bashed together an eBook who claim to be PR pros but boast no relevant qualifications or links to professional bodies (such as the CIPR or PRCA).

‘The PR Masterclass’ by Alex Singleton (Amazon link) is the best sort of book. Released in January 2014, the book serves as refreshing practical guide for how to work in PR. If you’re starting out in the industry for the first time then make this book the first on your reading list. Even if you’re an old hat in the industry, the book serves as a useful reminder for going back to the basics. As the Director General of the Public Relations Consultants Association, Francis Ingham, states in the foreword talking about the more theoretical books in our industry,

“It all has a place, and I do genuinely respect that place. But it is far from being the entirety – or indeed the mainstay – of our industry. And sometimes when people seek so very, very hard to create an artificial intellectual construct with which they can frame our industry’s work, they serve only to obscure what it does, and to confuse us all. The glory of this book is that it doesn’t make any of those mistakes”

What’s inside?
Alex Singleton’s background as a journalist at the The Daily Telegraph, writing for The Guardian, The Daily Express and Mail Online, along with being interviewed on countless news programmes, really shines through the pages. He is a journalist turned PR pro and each page of The PR Masterclass just oozes insight into our industry.

Undeniably a large focus of the book is about how to recognise and craft a newsworthy story. Looking at how press releases should be structured, what makes a good headline and what are the best angles to approach stories. It’s a gentle reminder that often the stories that clients expect to hit the newspaper, often doesn’t focus on the best angle. Sit on the side of your audience, not your client.

The book even covers the practicalities of maintaining media lists, advice for how to communicate with journalists and dealing with incoming media enquiries. At first glance, everyday practitioners may find these subjects a little too simple but personally I found chapters to be littered with words of wisdom. Such as,

“There is no shame in resisting a request [from a journalist] for an interview [with a PR’s client] until the editorial line being produced is revealed”

“As a result of the lazy use of these databases [media databases] by bad PR people, journalists are endlessly harassed by press releases that they have no interest in”

On the whole, I am personally against the use of media databases unless they serve the purpose of providing you the contact details of a journalist and publication you are already aware of. As a discovery tool they cannot be trusted. I’ve worked for agencies where colleagues have attempted to phone journalists who have long since departed from this mortal realm. It makes for awkward conversation with their colleagues…

“Journalists have a particular dislike of excessively bubbly copy, which they always add to their mental list of bad things the PR industry is responsible for.”

You can quite simply flick through Alex Singleton’s book and find insights around every corner. It’s a book that’s a must read before running a media campaign or if you want to find ways to improve your existing pitch. Next time I need to pitch to the media, I’ll be reaching for The PR Masterclass.

This is media relations, not social media
This book is certainly a practical guide to traditional PR but lacks digital focus. As a Digital Consultant working for Keene my focus is not traditional PR but to support the teams within the agency by providing a digital backbone to activities. It would be unfair for me to pick this out as a real downside to the book because from the very start The PR Masterclass states, “This book focuses on media relations. Public relations is undoubtedly broader than just trying to generate media coverage…” with a list of other things PR is, including board-level advice to blue chip companies.

Yet I did squirm when I read, “Some people – especially, I’m afraid to say, those who are unskilled at securing press coverage – assert that the conventional media no longer matters. What is important, they claim, is social media… an important part of public relations… these people are wrong if they believe conventional media is dead.” Is this a fair assessment? The format of news is moving online (trade press is slow to progress) but I’m skeptical to say that online campaigns have to still utilise traditional news sources. In my experience, if the client is right, then campaigns can reap spectacular results without a PR pro having to ring a single journalist.

Whether you are new to PR or just want to brush up on your skills then I highly recommend you buy this book. Alex Singleton urges for professionalism in the industry, delivers solid advice packed full of personal insight that could help change your campaigns for the better. If you want to build your understanding of digital then find another book, but before you do read The PR Masterclass.

You can buy The PR Masterclass on Amazon and can read Alex Singleton’s blog here.

I received a free copy of The PR Masterclass straight from Alex Singleton at my work address. It was a delightful surprise, coupled with a kind message (photographed below) but with no expectations of the book to be reviewed. It was the perfect desk drop and it’s been a pleasure reading it.